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Lasseter's resignation another black mark on Gwinnett's government

File Photos - From left, Kevin Kennerly, Shirley Lassiter, Charles Bannister

File Photos - From left, Kevin Kennerly, Shirley Lassiter, Charles Bannister

History of scandal

• June 28, 2010: Commission Chairman Charles Bannister is arrested and charged with driving under the influence. An investigation would later reveal the charge was unwarranted.

• Oct. 8, 2010: Bannister resigns to avoid prosecution of a perjury charge levied by a special grand jury investigating suspicious land deals.

• Oct. 20, 2010: Commissioner Kevin Kenerly is indicted by the same grand jury, and charged with bribery for allegedly taking $1 million from a developer in a deal for land near Rabbit Hill Park.

• Nov. 16, 2010: Kenerly resigns, calling the accusations against him a “distraction.”

• July 7, 2011: The Georgia Court of Appeals overturns the indictment against Kenerly, ruling the grand jury was not authorized to bring criminal charges. Another grand jury re-indicted him less than a month later.

• April 30, 2012: Bannister files a wrongful arrest lawsuit against Sheriff Butch Conway.

• May 14, 2012: Kenerly files a motion to quash the second indictment against him.

• May 31, 2012: Commissioner Shirley Lasseter abruptly resigns and pleads guilty to federal charges of bribery, admitting to accepting $36,500 for her vote on a proposed pawn shop in Duluth.

LAWRENCEVILLE -- The quote from U.S. Attorney Sally Yates -- issued in a Thursday news release from the Department of Justice -- lacked the "insert offense here," form letter feel of so many other prepared statements to come from her office.

It did not point to the feds' good work "stopping tax crimes in Georgia" or "preventing drug trafficking in the Southeast." It was not that generic.

"Today's guilty pleas," the statement said, "are part of an on-going effort to root out public corruption in Gwinnett County."

In less than two years, Gwinnett County's top governmental body has seen a chairman step down to avoid a perjury charge from a special grand jury investigating shady land deals; a commissioner still battling bribery indictments from that same investigation; and, on Thursday, another commissioner admit in federal court to teaming up with her son to sell her vote on a proposed pawn shop development.

All that is enough to validate District Attorney Danny Porter's recent depiction of the county's government: a "culture of corruption."

It was Porter himself who approached the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office two years ago requesting assistance probing that culture. Even after Thursday's guilty plea (and resignation) from Commissioner Shirley Lasseter, the investigation continues.

"As a prosecutor, and as a citizen of Gwinnett County, I'm shocked by this behavior," Porter said during a Thursday press conference, adding later: "I think people need to be more careful who they elect."

Recapping the controversy

These are three of the people that have been elected in Gwinnett, and what they've been accused of in the last 24 months:

-- Commission Chairman Charles Bannister. When Bannister was arrested in June 2010 on DUI charges that were eventually dropped, it was a black eye. The subsequent lawsuit against Sheriff Butch Conway is another.

But all of that was overshadowed when Bannister retired on Oct. 8, 2010, ending a three-decade political career. It would later surface that he agreed to resign in order to avoid a perjury charge from a grand jury that was investigating questionable land deals.

Bannister even pointed fingers in a recent document demanding a jury trial for his errant DUI arrest.

"Shortly after Bannister took office as Commission Chairman, (prominent local developer Wayne) Mason approached him and made it clear, explicitly, that if Bannister would use his position as Commission Chairman to Mason's advantage, Bannister would be made wealthy," his complaint alleged.

-- Commissioner Kevin Kenerly. That same grand jury indicted Kenerly on bribery charges, alleging he took $1 million from a developer to enable a favorable transaction when the county purchased land for an expansion to Rabbit Hill Park. He's also been charged with failing to disclose a financial interest in two zoning cases dealing with the same developer.

The initial indictment was thrown out, and Kenerly is still challenging the second one returned against him.

-- Commissioner Shirley Lasseter. Lasseter, who filled Bannister's role on an interim basis after he resigned, is the latest commission member to fall. On Thursday she pleaded guilty in federal court to accepting $36,500 in bribes for her vote on a proposed pawn shop on Boggs Road in Duluth. She reportedly told undercover agents she would also be willing to sell her vote on the privatization of the Briscoe Field Airport.

An undercover agent told Lasseter and her son -- John Fanning, who sat on Gwinnett's zoning appeals board -- that he was involved with drug trafficking and money laundering. They complied anyway.

Building a reputation?

Lasseter's demise came, at least to the public, out of nowhere, and more than 18 months after that of Bannister and Kenerly. The Board of Commissioners had finally begun to put its issues behind it.

"Just as I felt we had made some progress and begun to point the county in the right direction, we are faced with this serious setback," current Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said earlier this week. "I am just sick for all of Gwinnett County."

Jeff Rader, a DeKalb County commissioner, was measured but honest when asked about Gwinnett's reputation in other government circles. He praised the county's administration, but stopped short of doing the same for elected officials.

"Over the past decade, I think that many people would say that perhaps elected leadership (in Gwinnett) has slipped some," Rader said.

Though far from sympathetic, he offered his own explanation of the Gwinnett County government's recent string of corruption. He called the "informal decision making" that is frequent in local government a gateway to possible corruption.

"Members of the commission can become isolated and can start trying to give themselves more discretionary authority than they're really accountable for," Rader said. "Once they start doing that, they become vulnerable to making decisions that are not in the public interest and may be specifically made on an (illegal) basis."

Daniel Yearwood Jr., chairman of the nearby Barrow County Commission, called the situation, simply, "very unfortunate."

Indications are that the feds won't be closing their investigation into Gwinnett County's government. Porter, the district attorney, and Yates, the U.S. attorney, both hinted as much during a press conference Thursday.

Lasseter's position will have to be filled through a special election, and District 3 Commissioner Mike Beaudreau will run to keep his seat. The seats of commissioners John Heard and Lynette Howard are not up for voting this fall. Nash is running unopposed.

Debbie Dooley, a Dacula resident and national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, said Gwinnett's governing body has a long road ahead of it.

"I think voters have a distrust in the BOC with all the recent developments," she said. "Charlotte Nash is taking the right steps to restore that trust, but it will take time."

Comments

Karl 2 years, 2 months ago

@ Tyler Estep (writer of this article).

You are incorrect when you state that The chairman Charlotte Nash's seat is not up for election this fall. It is up for election, however, she had no one qualify against her in either the primary or the general election.. But the seat is up for election and she will win a four-year term by the fact that no one is running against her.

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ACC12_SEC13Booster 2 years, 2 months ago

They asked Jeff Rader, a DEKALB County Commissioner, to critique corruption in Gwinnett County government?

Asking someone in a very corrupt and increasingly inept DeKalb County government is like asking China or Iran to comment on civil rights in Syria.

Though whom better to ask about corruption in government than an official in DeKalb County where they have never met a nightclub or adult entertainment permit that they didn't like.

Asking someone in DeKalb about corruption in Gwinnett seems wholly appropriate seeing-as-though DeKalb seems to be the direction that Gwinnett is headed in a hurry in a quality-of-life sense.

Gwinnettians, take a good long hard look at DeKalb, because that's what most, if not all, of Gwinnett County will look like in 10-15 years (or at least the parts of Gwinnett that don't already look like DeKalb).

DeKalb, on the other hand, will look like Clayton does by then.

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Nero_Jr 2 years, 2 months ago

"And when it does, Gwinnett, Dekalb and the whole cursed metro area will look up and shout "Save us!"... and Decatur will look down and whisper "No."

None

by Nero_Jr

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rco1847 2 years, 2 months ago

You say that like asking someone from Gwinnett to comment about Dekalb would be appropriate. We've had 3 resignations-in-disgrace in short succession. That's more that recently completed terms.

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ACC12_SEC13Booster 2 years, 2 months ago

No, I say that because even with all of our ethical troubles here in Gwinnett, DeKalb County with their own notable issues with ethics and cronyism is clearly in no position to throw stones when it comes to corruption in government. And with all of our own numerous ethics issues to worry with kick-backs, bribes, cronyism and shady land deals, people in Gwinnett don't even have time to worry about what is going on with DeKalb's corruption. I was just pointing out the irony of asking someone from a county with as many ethics issues as DeKalb to comment on Gwinnett's ethics issues.

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wayne40242 2 years, 2 months ago

My girlfriend's family is also having problems with Gwinnett Co.Even though they have been paying the taxes on their land since 1968,somehow their land was stolen.A plot was done for a subdivision where their land was accidently included in this plot as part of the subdivision.After they discovered their mistake it was quick deeded to a developer even though they never owned the land nor had the deed to it.After many,many phone calls and a visit to the Court House,she was told that the only way to get it back was to get a lawyer and sue.After contacting a lawyer,it was discovered it would take at least $15,000 plus little chance of recovering their expenses.My girlfriend then sit up a meeting with Steve Pruit in which we both went,but was a waste of time.Steve was very unprofessional,he gave no explanations or reasons how happened.The only thing he would say was that he wasn't the land police and he didn't steal her land.Only in Gwinnett Co. can someone steal your land and you have to pay $15,000 to get your land back.

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R 2 years, 2 months ago

What part of the county?

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wayne40242 2 years, 2 months ago

At Jimmy Dodd and Sycamore Rd.

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JHogan 2 years, 2 months ago

You know, it's sorta hard to get mad at a councilwoman when the governor of the state gives away hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks to corporations, under the guise of "creating jobs" then turns right around an expects the citizens to pass a tax on themselves to make up for all that tax money he just gave away. There is a name for this form of government: it is called "Fascism."

But that's what we have now, like it or not. And I do not like it at all,

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Karl 2 years, 2 months ago

That's a goofy and totally unrelated analogy, which I guess makes it not an analogy at all.

Try again.

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rco1847 2 years, 2 months ago

That's funny Karl - I understoood what he was saying and I think you did you.

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brownj00 2 years, 2 months ago

You are just being silly. So you are saying it’s hard (for you) to be mad at a corrupt Commissioner because you are too mad at the Governor.

I guess that is not hard to understand – since you also tell us you don’t know what fascism means. As is often the case, it looks like just a (misapplied) label you use for something you don’t like. I laugh when I see people use the term – 90% of the time it is just silliness. Silliness that tells other people a lot about the speaker though. Like the terms “nazi” or “racist” the term gets misused more often than not, and thus becomes arbitrary. Just a sharp stick to poke other people with. Try an encyclopedia or Wikipedia for the term and see what it really means. It has nothing to do with the situation you describe. And that has nothing to do with this case- unless you assert that Deal is taking bribes to do that.

As for “abuse of authority” – your example is pretty poor (and very arguable) but show me any government anywhere, at any time, that was free of any abuse, misuse, or corruption. It's easy to say authority is bad - especially if you have never lived under anarchy. A perfect system is not an option. I suggest 99%+ percent prefer the results of our stable government so far (no matter how imperfect it really is) compared with the alternatives. Besides anarchy, look at Russia, Greece, France, China, etc.

I wish people would stop the ignorant outrage and get a clue. Unfortunately the media and education industries seem to pushing us in the wrong direction (e.g. sensationalism and political correctness).

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notblind 2 years, 2 months ago

The penalties obviously aren't harsh enough to deter misbehavior. How about if the government seizes you home, business, bank accounts and all other assets when you are convicted of corruption [ and the same for the person paying the bribe ] ? Wouldn't have made any difference in Lasseter's case but might make some of the other crooks think twice about running for office or paying off politicians.

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fred12345 2 years, 2 months ago

There has been an atmosphere of corruption for many years in Gwinnett. I could name names but will not. Previous BOC are all very rich now with private planes, huge homes, expensive cars, etc. Before being in office they were real estate agents, cabinet makers, insurance salesman. After their time on the BOC, they retire rich. Many bought up land anticipating the second perimeter would be approved. The effect of their selfish service is a Gwinnett that is horribly developed with high crime and declining quality of life. The current BOC is corrupt but callous and getting caught. They are still allowing stupid developments to happen, no doubt benefiting from these developments. All need to go.

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rco1847 2 years, 2 months ago

So long as there is essentially one political party in Gwinnett the problem will continue. It's a license to steal. With a 2 party environment they tend to watch dog each other. Our current Republican Aristocracy thinks they're above the law.

The whole corruption thing isn't over. We may not see more indictments but that does not mean all culprits were caught. Somer rats are just better at burying thier tracks.

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rco1847 2 years, 2 months ago

I recall a recent BOC meeting when someone said Gwinnett was supposed t o be open for business. I now believe they meant Gwinnett was supposed to be open for corruption.

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brownj00 2 years, 2 months ago

Or you could say "up for sale" instead. I wonder if this did not steer the airport vote clearly against. If the Board had voted for it people would scream (and maybe rightly) that the vote was bought.

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PIRG 2 years, 2 months ago

I am glad that Mr. Porter is going after the "culture of corruption." I am glad he is seeking the assistance of the U.S. Attorney's Office. I think this culture extends to Hall County and the Flowery Branch area where it is referred to as a culture of non accountability. I knoiw this same U.S. Attorney's Office is aware of issues in Hall. Giving the ties with Cain, I am even more convinced that Mr. Porter should express his concerns from his position as the District Attorney.

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pcjohn 2 years, 2 months ago

Porter is a two-faced DA. He says he is against corruption but he let Bannister off the hook after Bannister was INDICTED! If that is the act of a man against corruption then we need a new definition of "against corruption". And Porter, with his huge staff, has not even gotten Kenerly to the dock yet. I guess he's waiting for the heat to die down so he can drop the prosecution. And this guy is running unopposed for reelection !

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Blessed1 2 years, 2 months ago

Part of the distrust is that residents cannot get answers from the BOC. For a couple of years I have tried to find out why since 1986 Gwinnett County has used a for-profit consultant to serve as its Community Development "arm". This lucrative contract (which has been renewed several times without any real competition) only calls for the consultant to provide "program management services". That is basically dotting the "i" and crossing the "t" related to the HUD funds received. That is a far cry from what community development is really all about. Gwinnett County's historical community development track record pales in comparison to communities that have actual Community Development departments, such as DeKalb County, Savannah, Columbus, etc. In fact, it's hard to even locate Gwinnett County Community Development on the county's website! I've posed the question of how this 25 year arrangement has benefited the residents of Gwinnett County, but that has been met with complete silence from the BOC.

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wayne40242 2 years, 2 months ago

The situation with my girlfriend's family's land being illegally taken by a developer is not the only problem they're having with Gwinnett Co.Since 1968,they paid taxes on this same piece of land that was 0.087,then the first of 2012 Gwinnett Co. said it was actually .112.So for 43 yrs they were paying taxes on more land than they now claim it is.They could not tell us how this happened and why?Since they paid more taxes than they should have,my girlfriend asked about a refund but they're not letting them go back any more than 3 yrs.,even though they should be entitled to several thousand dollars in refunds.

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darflyboy 2 years, 2 months ago

A public servant who breaks the law should serve time in jail just as a normal citizen would - no ifs, and, or buts!

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brownj00 2 years, 2 months ago

I am just curious... can anyone point to any county government that is popular, has no controversy, makes nobody mad, makes no mistakes, etc.? Don't get me wrong - I am not defending anyone here. I just think these kinds of complaints are pretty universal.

We have some serious issues in Gwinnett, and generally I favor very harsh treatment of any public official (or officer) who violates the public trust so badly.

However, I've lived here 20 years (post-military) but it gets tiresome to hear long-time residents who fondly remember the (semi-rural) 60's-70's make it sound like Gwinnett is experiencing the end of civilization and it is all the fault of the county board. I've lived elsewhere, and overseas, seen more development, etc. This is not what TERRIBLE looks like and I don't see a lot of other places in GA or the US looking terribly different if you compare apples to apples.

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